Growing Non-Credit Programming: Central to Institutional Success
Colleges and universities across the United States are scrambling to find new revenue streams and marketplaces that can help to offset the losses caused by declining traditional student populations and increasing competition. One marketplace to which many institutions pay limited attention is non-credit education, which provides practical, responsive and non-degree-based programming to a wide range of students. However, success in this space requires institutional understanding, commitment and investment. In this Q&A, Gary Matkin discusses the importance of non-credit higher education and shares his thoughts on some of the challenges many leaders face when trying to grow this programming at their institutions.
Evo: What is the value of non-credit higher education for non-traditional students?
GM: First off, the whole label “non-credit” is wrong because it basically compares all kinds of learning with the formal learning that we get in schools where credit is a factor. I just really don’t like the idea of the word non-credit because it denigrates the importance of what really is very important in today’s world and it diminishes what I think is a very important role for the university to play. This is the first obstacle to seeing the true value of this kind of education.
Informal learning is important. People always need to learn different things and, the real issue for universities revolves around the appropriateness of offering learning that is not related to formal degree programs.
Evo: How does this notion that non-credit higher ed is somehow “lesser than” formal, for-credit programming impact the way institutions approach this type of education?
GM: The first problem is that the metrics and standards for formal education are different than the metrics and standards for informal education. When we talk about quality in degree education, we’re talking about a whole infrastructure and history of what creates quality in a degree program. That quality is generally based on what is taught, who teaches and how it is taught. The higher quality stuff is usually harder to learn, therefore people with PhDs are supposed to be better at teaching the material. And who is taught? Our institutions are judged by the quality of the students that they actually turn away.
Those three elements are absolutely contrary to the quality standard for informal learning, where you want to make sure that people are learning what they want to be taught and that those who need learning the most often are those that have the most difficulty in learning. In terms of who teaches, that quality standard is almost irrelevant as long as that person understands the needs of the learner and can meet those needs. While the standards and metrics for informal learning are completely different, they’re nevertheless relevant.
Evo: What sparked your interest in non-credit higher education?
GM: All of my work has been at land-grant universities. They have a special obligation to help the people learn as they’re based upon bringing that university knowledge base down to a very practical level.
Moreover, I’ve always been very interested in the tension between academic elitism and the notion of serving a larger population with learning from the knowledge base of the entire university.
Evo: What role can non-credit programming play in helping people find work?
GM: There are a lot of skills and abilities and competencies that you need in the workplace that are not taught in the formal classroom. For instance, engineers all have to learn how to use computer-aided design, yet university courses in this are very few and far between because universities are not supposed to be teaching how to use software. That’s too applied, that’s not theoretical. However, to be an engineer you have to use that tool.
The idea is that a university has an obligation to help engineers be the best they can be so it’s logically obligated to supply some sort of learning in that realm. There are a lot of skills needed in the workplace that universities would never address in their formal education, yet we’re producing these graduates and we’re asking them to go into the workforce unprepared.
What we’re trying to do with non-degree programming is to fill in those skills to help our students—enrolled in campus-based programs, MOOCs and everything in-between—be truly effective in the workplace. It’s non-credit but it’s very important for people and their lives.
Evo: What would it take to blend the practical learning of the non-credit side with the theoretical learning of the for-credit side of an institution?
GM: It’s important to make sure we’re talking about the right audience. Traditional-aged 18- to 22-year-old university students looking for a residential experience are honing their life skills as they come to college. One of the reasons they come to college is to be on their own, to be independent, and to gain those life skills along with the academic skills they need to be effective later on. What we don’t focus on frequently is the skills they need to be effective in the workforce. One strategy for that audience is to embed in their co-curricular experiences—including internships and jobs and so forth—the experiences and skills that they need in order to be effective in the workplace.
For the non-traditional audience—the older people who already have developed their own personalities and ways of dealing with adult life—they frequently have specific gaps or identifiable gaps in their skills and competencies. Let’s say they don’t know how to deal with clients very well; there are non-credit training programs that can help them with that.
In either case, the informal learning is extremely important to the success on the job.
Evo: How are universities approaching the development of non-credit programming?
GM: Universities have a knowledge base that can be very important in all kinds of learning and very important to informal learning. So how does a university share that base effectively to serve learners’ needs when and as they need it? One of the approaches comes from the modularization of learning. We see a lot of formal learning being broken down into smaller parts in order to serve informal learning needs.
Evo: What does it take for a university to create a non-credit program that can provide labor market value to its students?
GM: First is a recognition that it’s a logical thing for a university to do. Some universities would say that’s just not what we do—that it’s for a community college or some sort of soft skill provider or something like that. My feeling is universities can do a very good job at these less formal, more practical and applied learning opportunities because they have the knowledge base upon which to ground them.
If we were to give a course on how to deal with the frail elderly for example, we have the background of medicine and psychology of aging that inform the way we prepare for a clinical, practical, applied approach to dealing with this demographic. We have the opportunity to do a better job than even a hospital does because we have the knowledge base behind this.
The first thing is to recognize that the university really does have a legitimate role to play and it’s not inconsistent with its traditions. The second is institutional will—saying we do care enough about our students that we want them to be successful in life and we’re willing to invest some of our time and energy in helping them achieve that success.
Evo: What are some of the main concerns faculty have with non-credit programming, and how can those issues be overcome?
GM: Faculty are very busy and how they spend their time is very important to the university. The university wants them to spend their time on being better teachers and being better researchers and discovering new things. They’re not necessarily interested in having them figure out how to apply the theories that they’re proving in the practical life.
The first way of handling that is to develop institutional infrastructure like University Extension or Continuing Education operations that can leverage faculty time and also bring in experts with knowledge related to the university knowledge base but who are not necessarily a direct part of the university. I’m talking about graduates who are in professional fields and have the formal educational experience that is really necessary for university-level work.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about increasing the footprint of non-credit programming on campus and in society?
GM: Non-credit programming should be thought of as additional or supplemental to the experience that we’re providing students as they graduate. It’s a role that universities have historically played, which is to provide the society with some kind of knowledge and expertise.
I think of the learning objectives of students that do not involve degree work as being an object of worthy attention by the institution, but it needs special expertise in order to do that. Moreover, it needs a special kind of institutional will and investment to do it really well. It’s something that’s really important in order for the university to really continue to fulfill its contract with society.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator